Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers


Language does not exist in a vacuum. Language is used in human society, for purposes of communication, and hence has meaning. Our discussion in the previous two chapters has been based on form and concerned with the analysis and description of linguistic structure, and we have paid relatively little attention to matters of meaning as such. Yet we must always keep the factor of meaning in mind, as a decisive criterion for determining whether a sound or a form has functional significance or not. And, of course, meaning is what gives language its usefulness, and is its very reason for existence: no one would care to juggle with so complicated a system of vocal habits unless they were able to convey meaning by it and thus profit by their use of it.

We have just used a somewhat complicated way of defining meaning, especially by speaking of “the situations in respect to which we use linguistic signals. Why couldn’t we have made it simpler, by saying “the situations in which” we use linguistic signals? There is a very good reason: because linguistic signals are often used when what they refer to is not present in the actual situation between speaker and hearer.

The first and most important step in the formalization of Discourse analysis is to distinguish what is said from what is done. From a grammatical viewpoint, there are only a small number of sentence types: principally statements, questions, and imperatives, and these must be related by Discourse rules to the much larger set of actions done with words. It is commonplace to use these terms interchangeably with the names of certain actions: assertions, requests for information, and commands respectively. But there is no such simple one-to-one relationship: it is easy to demonstrate, for example, that requests for information can be made with statements, questions, or imperatives:

Furthermore, there are a great many other actions that are done with words and which must be related by rule to the utterance: refusals, challenges, retreats, insults, promises, threats, etc. The rules which connect what is said to the actions being performed with words are complex: the major task of Discourse analysis is to analyze them and thus to show that one sentence follows another in a coherent way. If we hear the dialogue:

  1. Are You going to work tomorrow?
  2. I’m on jury duty.

We know intuitively that we are listening to coherent Discourse. Yet there is no formal basis in sentence grammar to explicate our reaction to this well-formed sequence. A statement follows a question; the question is a request for information, but in what way does the statement form an answer to that request? Some fear that linguists will never be able to answer such questions because one would have to enter into our grammars every known relation between persons and objects: in this case, that people on jury duty are not able to work.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysts have distinguished Discourse coherence from Discourse cohesion, with coherence having to do with the meaning assigned to the text and the cohesion with the way the text is structurally integrated. Various authors who have studied Discourse coherence have listed how content from different parts of the text can relate to one another. Analysts studying coherence have developed ways of uncovering the causal structuring of event descriptions by examining what has been called event chains expressed within a plan or as part of an integrated series of activities. Event descriptions, as well as story plots, typically include a depiction of states and actions that are caused or themselves cause other events. The nature of causality may be related to the aims of the participants in the story as is the case for actions carried out by a character. The character’s motivation to achieve a goal and the specification of that goal ties conceptually to the actions the character engages in to achieve that goal. Causal chains can also be physical in origin as when conditions enable actions to take place or when actions are blocked by unexpected circumstances.

Processing of Discourse has been investigated by studying subjects’ abilities to deal with Discourse segments under various experimental manipulations. For example, comparisons have been made of subjects’ abilities to recall Discourse after different time intervals.

Linguistic Analysis

One basic assumption in the linguistic analysis is that in every language (or dialect), some utterances are alike as to form and meaning. Otherwise, of course, if the speakers of a language could never depend on the similarity of form and meaning for any given combination of sounds, from one moment to the next, communication would be impossible. But we have already noted that linguistic form is far more nearly constant, and more easily identifiable, than linguistic meaning. This is because of the relatively limited range — of phonemes, morphemes, syntactical features — which linguistic forms cover, and because of the immense range which is covered by the situations with respect to which almost any form is used. That is to say, when we analyze all the factors in any human situation, even the simplest, in which language serves as a means of communication, we find that their ramifications are enormous. Even such an apparently clear meaning as that of the word pie is much more complicated than we might think at first sight. There are quite a number of different kinds of pie (e.g. apple, blueberry, chicken, “Eskimo pie”; shallow, deep-dish; covered, open-top; and so on), and not the same in the various parts of the English-speaking world. The chemical and physical constituents of pie, simple though they may seem, are very complex, and even, in the present state of our scientific knowledge, not wholly definable. Moreover, the meaning of the word pie, like that of every other word, differs for each situation in which it occurs-depending on the state of mind, attitude, and so on, of the speaker and the hearer-and no two situations are ever alike; the term pie, for instance, may cause me pleasure or disgust, or leave me indifferent, according to how I am feeling, how hungry I am, the previous experiences I may have had with pie, and so forth. Emotional factors such as these last are usually left out of dictionary definitions (it would be hard to include them), but they are very real factors in the total meaning of any linguistic signal in each specific situation in which it is used.

All meaning reflects our experience of the universe we live in. It is commonplace to say that if we have had no experience of something, then we do not know what it means-not only linguistically, but also emotionally and in our social adjustment. Yet our experience of the universe is something which, in itself, is indivisible, and any division we set up in our experience-as the meanings of our language inevitably leads us to do-is of necessity conventional. The spectrum, for instance, is a continuous scale of light-waves, whose length ranges from 40 to 72 hundred-thousandths of a millimeter; but our language and its meanings cut the spectrum for us into various shades, from violet

The ordinary citizen who has grown up in English speaking home and has been taught in English throughout his school career is what we call monolingual, that is to say, he uses only one language. Often, however, he may have occasion to use some other language. Some of us have been brought up in a home where our parents or grandparents spoke some language other than English. A person who served in the army outside of the United States may have picked up some of the language spoken in foreign countries, or ordinary traveling may have brought the same result. We often need a foreign language for some specific purpose. Our work may call for it in one connection or another: dealing with workmen whose language is not English; corresponding with foreign firms; traveling abroad or living in a foreign country. Scholars and scientists need to read books in other languages than their own. We may want to do missionary work in a foreign area, say South America or Africa or the South Seas, and therefore need to learn the native languages to preach in and translate the Bible into. Conceivably, we may get some of our recreations out of using a foreign language: as a radio ham, for conversation with foreigners, listening to the soundtrack of foreign movies, or for leisure-time reading. Or, if we go through high school or college, we may be forced to take a foreign language course just because it is required, or because the pressure is brought to bear on us to study it, whether we want to or not.

There are various ways we can set about acquiring a foreign language. One way is to get somebody who talks the language, and works with them, imitating and learning the language from them; of course, the more like a native speaker that person is the better. The other way is to get a book and sit down with it, alone or in a group, with more or less speaking of the foreign language, but trying to get it by reading rather than by speaking. The first is the ways that come most naturally to the ordinary person, and is the way that people have, since time immemorial, learned the languages of other peoples. The second is the way that a literate society (or an over-literate one, as ours rather tends to be) is likely to go about learning a foreign language; if we think that the “written language” is the real language and that writing is more important than speaking, and especially if we want to do more reading than talking in the end, we are very likely to start out by trying to read and write before — or instead of — hearing and talking. A good part of the foreign language teaching that goes on in our schools and colleges has been and still is, based chiefly on reading and writing.

The term Discourse designates a unit consisting of a sentence or sequence of sentences with a given order between them. Communication in a language proceeds not by placing one random sentence after another, but by relating and connecting sentences in groups. Within a given Discourse, e.g., a conversation or a chapter of a book, there may be sub-Discourse groups — marked by “changes of the subject” or by paragraph breaks, for instance. The nature of the ordering of sentences that holds Discourses and sub-Discourses together has not yet been satisfactorily described. However, that the Discourse is a linguistic unit, that the lower linguistic units can be said to be determined only in respect to the Discourses in which they are embedded, and that Discourses are themselves elements in the total communicative behavior of human beings, cannot be seriously doubted. It is only within a given Discourse that we can know whether a particular sentence is to be taken seriously or as a joke, as a figurative or literal statement, as a question or a statement; it is only in respect to a total Discourse in a total “communication situation” that we can know whether particular words and sentences are appropriate or inappropriate, polite or impolite, literary or every-day. Every Discourse in English contains at least one sentence; every sentence at least one clause; every clause at least one phrase; every phrase at least one word; every word at least one phoneme.

Functional shift aroused opposition from the authorities, particularly the use of adjectives for adverbs. “He is really good” is a modern parallel to “It is prodigious cold” of the eighteenth century, and both expressions have been strongly condemned. Yet very itself, if we go back far enough, is an example of the very same shift. “It is very cold” originally meant “It is true cold.” But time has a way of sanctifying old grammatical “errors.”

Problems of the case also aroused the older grammarians, especially the choice of pronoun forms after than and as and the verb to be. Here the recommendations differed, especially in the case of as and than. A related problem was the use of the genitive forms before the gerund, as in “I rejoice at his leaving so quickly,” rather than “I rejoice at him leaving so quickly.”

Among matters in a miscellaneous category, we may mention their favouring the article the before a gerund and of after it when no possessive pronoun is needed; and their disapproval of contractions such as ’em for them or don’t for doesn’t, of “misplacement” of modifiers like only, and of redundancies such as yet, from hence, and approved of.

It is instructive that many of the points “settled” by grammarians in the eighteenth century are today still a major concern of our school grammars. Only a few seem no longer to need special attention by language reformers. The circumstances of the origin of these grammatical recommendations, continued in a persistent educational tradition into our times, should make us cautious about taking too seriously laments about the present state of the language and about its special susceptibility to corruption. Corruption is an old accusation, as baseless when it was first made as it is today. “Errors” in grammar often have long, respectable histories, and do not afford evidence of a new spirit of linguistic destructiveness.

Unit under review

Unit 1

  1. Functions
  2. Grammar
    1. Simple Present
    2. Adverbs of frequency
    3. Expressions: I think…, For me…, I love…, I hate…, etc.
  3. Functions
    1. Exchanging personal details
    2. Talking about likes and dislikes
    3. Talking about regular activities
    4. Describing jobs
  4. Vocabulary
    1. Hotel Jobs
    2. Daily duties
    3. Nationalities

As the unit cited has already demonstrated, the speech arts may be so taught as to develop attitudes of high social importance. Some of these are mere matters of saying “Please” and “Thank you” in a wide variety of ways and in numerous kinds of situations. Such amenities are the outward expression of an inner courtesy and consideration for others. The tone in which a request is made often determines the tone used in reply. Feelings are smoothed or ruffled by the manner in which one person addresses another. An atmosphere of gracious living, of mutual consideration and tact is particularly important in a classroom where speech is being taught. Nowhere does the example of the teacher do more to condition the behaviour of the learner. Learning how to disagree with courtesy, learning to make the most of each person’s contribution, however meagre, learning to change the course of a discussion at just the right moment to avoid a deep hurt for another, learning to distinguish between fact and opinion, between honesty and dishonesty in thinking-these are fundamental matters of human relations intimately tied up with speech. Through dramatics, also, a boy or girl can develop social imagination and can learn to co-operate with others, to assume responsibility, to accept criticism, and to respond resourcefully in solving group problems.

In today’s world, the increase in the number of voices and the extension of their range by machines necessitate more than fluency of language and showmanship in performance. In addition to speech skills, a genuine integrity of purpose, accuracy of facts, reliability of opinions, and sincerity of feeling are required if speaking is to be a forthright and trustworthy medium of contact between mind and mind.

Speech is intimately tied up also with the development of personality. More than any other one thing it is an index to the self, and on it the expansion of the self depends to a significant degree. One’s personal effectiveness is determined in large measure by what one says and how one says it.

Perhaps the hardest part of the teacher’s responsibility in developing good habits of speech is to learn how to criticize wisely and to direct criticism by the class. Appraisal must be in terms of the goals set up jointly by teacher and class before the activity is begun. It must begin with consideration of merits, for approval, always a potent teaching device, is especially important in anything so personal as speech. It must push through to specific consideration of what the student needs to do better next time and must be accompanied by concrete suggestions as to what to do about weaknesses revealed. The individual must feel certain of the good will and confidence of his critics and of their interest in helping him to improve.

Discussion of what the speaker said is both motivation and implicit criticism. “Did he inform, persuade, or entertain as he intended?” If needed, the teacher’s criticism and/or that of a student partner can be set down in writing during the discussion, perhaps formulated in the light of the discussion. Principles, even of delivery, need to be taught, preferably in sessions evaluating a round of speeches. Rating does not need to be on all elements of speech, but on special merits and needs in relation to the purpose of the talk.

Balancing teacher-, class-, and self-criticism. Some teachers prefer, early in the term, to do all the criticizing themselves, cantering first on the value of what was said and on its effect upon the audience. Detailed aspects of technique can then be considered as elements of the program for improvement. Sometimes the teacher’s comment is made in front of the class; sometimes on a small sheet of paper of which the teacher keeps a copy; sometimes in private conference later; and sometimes by means of a combination of methods.

In too many instances the students already competent in speaking are the ones who receive the lion’s share of available training. They are the window dressing with which the teacher impresses the school and the school impresses the public. This situation is natural; up to a point it is desirable. Youngsters capable of responding brilliantly to special instruction deserve the opportunity to develop their talents. Fellow students are stimulated by their example, and society has need of their accomplishments. But society has need also of the contributions of their less able schoolmates.

At the same time, the school should be teaching the inarticulate to speak, making the poor speaker’s average and the average speakers good. Remedial services for the handicapped are imperative, a speech clinic, for example, and wherever possible a specialist in general speech and speech correction, to assist classroom teachers throughout the school system. There should be instruction in the fundamentals of voice and diction and there should be application of these fundamentals to the speech activities of everyday life for all pupils in the regular language arts courses. In addition there should be special opportunities in the speech arts for advanced students in elective courses and in extracurricular activities.

Discourse Analysis in the view of Guy Cook and McCarthy, Michael

According to Guy Cook Discourse is text and context together, interacting in a way which is perceived as meaningful by the participants. The task of Discourse analysis is for describing this phenomenon. To do this, it needs to pay attention not only to cognitive processes in general, but also to features specific to a culture. Discourse analysis is sometimes accused of being large and rather messy, for it cannot bring to analysis the precision of approaches which isolate one facet of communication from others. (Cook 2)

Cook further elaborates that the importance of Discourse types in a theory of communication, and of the way participants recognize them, is another reason why Discourse analysis cannot be limited to descriptions of abstracted parts of Discourses like single sentences, but needs to describe both text and context, including physical form. In speech, identification of Discourse types may be influenced by whether the language is shouted or sung, whether it is beamed down from a satellite on to millions of tv screens, or whispered in darkness to one person through the grille in a confessional. (Cook 5)

Cook argues that some linguists confine their studies to the formulation of rules for the selection and combination of units below the sentence. They regard the sentence as the upper limit of linguistic enquiry on the assumption that rules governing the combination of sentences-if they exist at all-must make appeal to areas other than the linguistic: the shared situational, cultural and world knowledge of the participants. (Cook, 146)

According to Cook for Discourse analysis, the easiest data to collect are from the bulge or from public interactions of differentiated power, such as legal proceedings, but a comprehensive approach to Discourse, which is qualitative as well as quantitative, needs to consider intimate Discourse too. (Cook, 151)

Works Cited

Cook, Guy. The Discourse of Advertising. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dubicka Iwonna, O’Keeffe Margaret English for International Tourism Pre Intermediate Longman 2003.

McCarthy, Michael. Discourse analysis for Discourse analysis for language teachers Cambridge University Press 1991.